Ride-along with Border Patrol agents gives perspective on border problems
Nevada Appeal News Service
Editor’s note: This is the last of a five-part series about the National Guard’s involvement with Operation Jump Start. Nevada Appeal News Service reporter Steve Ranson, who is a member of the Nevada Army National Guard and managing editor of its quarterly newspaper, recently returned from a five-day trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.
SAN MIGUEL, Arizona – U.S. Border Patrol agent John Burge recently missed his 10-year high school reunion. The 28-year-old Oklahoman of Choctaw-Cheyenne descent had made plans earlier this year to attend the reunion and see his buddies, but too much work on the border derailed those plans.
Burge, though, took the disappointment of not attending the reunion in stride, even though his friends didn’t.
“My friends wonder how I can do this job,” he said, explaining the dangers of being an agent in one of the most remote areas of Arizona. “My graduating class was small, so most of us were close.”
Burge is a growing number of Border Patrol agents assigned to a sector in Casa Grande, almost 120 miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border.
On one Friday afternoon almost two weeks ago, I rode with Burge when he kept a watchful eye as Nevada Air National Guardsmen graded and repaired roads. Because of the provisions of Operation Jump Start, guardsmen are not allowed to perform law enforcement duties or carry weapons. The Reno airmen from the 152nd Civil Engineering Squadron recently returned from southern Arizona as part of Operation Jump Start, a two-year mission directed by President Bush to send more than 6,000 National Guardsmen to help the U.S. Border Patrol improve its day-to-day operations and to increase the agency’s number of agents along the border.
As Burge and I patrolled the wide, red clay road that paralleled the border on the Tohono O’Odham Nation, he showed me how easily illegal aliens can cross into Arizona.
Every two miles, a 6-foot, graffiti-scarred marker resembling the Washington Monument identifies the actual border. A buffer zone approximately 10 to 15 feet wide lies between the legal border and a barbed-wire fence which, that by ranching standards, would not keep cattle in.
Burge spent much of his time pointing out the fence’s vulnerability. He showed the airmen an area where a vehicle – likely a pickup – had backed up to the fence and loaded a number of illegal immigrants into the bed. The tire marks had been haphazardly covered.
“They take a tree branch or a little bush and sweep away the tire marks,” Burge said, pointing to one of the tracks.
Thirty feet west of the tracks, runoff from the daily monsoon rains had washed away a portion of the ground under the fence’s last strand of barbed wire.
“They’ll choose a wash where the fence is on top, and they don’t have to crawl with their backpacks on,” he said.
Burge also showed some fencing that had been cut and the barbed-wire strands rewired in an attempt to cover up a crossing.
“They’ll drop down the fence, and the guide acts as a lookout,” he said.
Dangers facing an agent
Farther west of the washout, Burge showed me another site by an underground river. Fresh footprints (or “signs” in Border Patrol terminology) showed a northerly flow into the United States. The same location almost led to a serious injury for Burge three years ago.
“I had separated a group of about 45. Thirty-eight made it back south across the border, and my vehicle was 20 yards away,” Burge said. “I was trying to round up the seven.”
As Burge attempted to round up the remaining men, the others who had escaped returned, many of them trying to pull Burge into the fence. Others were throwing rocks at his head and back.
Burge had his pistol holstered, and his rifle was still in the vehicle. He said he was not willing to gamble with his life. Burge tried to keep his cool, but he didn’t like the odds. He pulled away from the fence and raced to his Border Patrol SUV, closing the door ahead of the Mexicans.
“They rushed from the south side after I got into the vehicle. They were all pounding on the vehicle as I left. It was a Hollywood type of thing,” Burge said.
Looking back, Burge said he would handle the situation much differently now because of his experience.
Not afraid to cross
Even with the guardsmen working on the road and several other agents in the area, illegal aliens were still brazen enough to try crossing the border.
Approximately 1,000 yards east of our location, we spotted two scouts scurrying across the road. Burge shifted his green and white Ford Excursion into drive and gunned the vehicle down the road. The scouts returned across the border, hiding in a grove of mesquite near one of the border monuments. Scouts survey an area to ensure a clear road. This time, however, it wasn’t.
“Come here, I want to talk to you,” Burge said in Spanish.
“No, you come here,” one of the scouts shot back.
“I can’t go into Mexico. I just want to talk to you,” Burge responded.
The other side was silent.
We watched the grove for another 10 minutes, but we saw no more movement. Burge decided that we would leave and drive to an area sparsely populated by ranchos.
That drive was short-lived. No sooner had Burge and I passed the second house north of the border then radio traffic from other agents began to increase.
Agents working the main road near the Law Enforcement Center had pulled over a Chevrolet Suburban and discovered it had been stolen in Las Vegas. Stolen California plates replaced those issued in Nevada. This type of Suburban was similar to one that had rolled over near Yuma earlier in the week, killing nine illegal immigrants.
Burge also noticed the scratches on the side of the vehicle, an indication that the driver had been racing the Chevy off the main roads through the shrubs and mesquite.
“Look, that’s Arizona pin striping,” he said with a slight grin, pointing to the long, distinct scratches.
That wasn’t all.
Eleven illegal aliens were in the vehicle, which agents theorized drove across the border into the United States. The driver and passenger occupied the two front seats, while two mothers and their children sat in the back seats. Seven men crammed themselves into the cargo area.
We arrived to the pullover site within 10 minutes. Except for the driver, who was being interrogated by two agents, the others had been loaded into a Border Patrol marked service vehicle.
Burge’s shift was ending at the right time. Another band of rain clouds moved into the area to darken the late afternoon sky. A few raindrops began to fall, and thunder could be heard miles away. Before he headed back to Casa Grande, Burge dropped me off at the Law Enforcement Center and filed a daily report.
Despite the dangers, the long hours and the uncertainty of each day, the four-year agent from southeastern Oklahoma told me he wouldn’t have his life any other way.
• Contact reporter Steve Ranson at firstname.lastname@example.org.